The oldest drawing in the Raphael Soyer exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts was made 60 years ago. The newest shows a couple kissing on a sidewalk in New York. Something in that picture - the haircuts of the lovers, her T-shirt and her jeans - pins it to the present. A little gray-haired man is on the street behind them, observing them intently, a sketchbook in his hand.
That dispassionate observer is the painter Raphael Soyer, 77 years old now and still going strong. It is difficult to name an artist less pretentious more honest or humane. He has but one subject his fellow human beings. Raphael Soyer is a mensch .
A Raphael he's not. His line is rarely graceful, he is not afraid to scribble. He does not idealize. He looks into our faces and shows us what he sees.
"The content of my art is people - men, women and children." Soyer has acknowledged. "I choose to be a realist and a humanist in art."
Soyer is a New Yorker (he moved there from Russia with his twin brother. Moses, 65 years ago), but he's paid no attention to the whirling fashoins of that city's art. "Paintings without the element of drawing such as abstract expressionism, do not interest me."
He does not innovate, he chronides. His subjects are tired straphangers and shopgirls on the Lexington Avenue Express and the 1929 headlines that they read ("Girl Slain in Nightclub"). He visits the soup kitchens of the Depression where behind the vacant faces of the unemployed are sad, uplifting slogans - "God is Your Friend." How Long Since You Wrote to Mother?" - painted on the wall. Soyer, all his life, has painted his self-potrait. One, done on the day John Kennedy was shot, shows the artist mourning his eyes still red from weeping. In the faces of his people we read the spirit of their times.
He does not exaggerate, as do R. Crumb and Red Grooms, or tell the viewer sentimental jokes as does Norman Rockwell: or record as does Saul Steinberg, an incredible New York that no one else can see. Soyer's art is straight.
His nudes are never beautified, his Depression unemployed are not symbols of injustice. 'They don't reflect anger, not even frustration' he told Janet Flint, who organized this show. "I saw them all over, doing nothing. By temperament, probably, I chose to paint these silent, non-demanding figures rather than the demonstrations, the clashes with police so other pointed by some of my fellow artists during the Depression."
He has often portrayed artists, Arshile Gorky Gregory Corso, Max Weber, Edwin Dickson, because, as he explain, "I am shy about approaching strangers, and I am more at home with artists. There is a mutual interest and understanding between us."
Soyer is no master. He is an honest man who makes unaffected art. "Raphael Soyer: Drawings and Watercolours" will remain on view through Nov. 27 at the National Collection 8th and G Streets NW.